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Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

pets vs kids, and what we spend our money on…

the author’s

My dogs are pretty indulged. Even (dare I confess?) spoiled. They have soft little beds in their kennels, fleecy things I wash regularly, and replace when the dogs chew holes in them. There is an American-made brand of good dog food, and shots, and pill for allergies & arthritis.

But my dogs are NOT my children. And my husband & I have faced the spectre of vet bills for ageing dogs, as well as what our responsibilities to these two members of our family are.

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Today I read a post about a family in Norway that recreated their dining room for their bulldog in his boarding kennel. And yes, you read that correctly: they moved a sofa, tables, a dog bed, and other things into Igor the bulldog’s boarding space. Just so he’d be comfortable while they went on vacation.

the author’s

I see this in acquaintances, and (of course) online. People are taking up collections to give artificial joints to dogs, organ transplants, etc. And I have mostly unmixed feelings about it. Yes, it’s your money. And yes, my dogs ARE beloved members of my family. But the woman who took her daughter’s school funds to buy an extra year or so for her dog? I’m not cool w/ that. Nor do I think that we should be spending $58+ BILLION on our animal friends. We have kids starving to death, folks.

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Please don’t misunderstand: I have two beloved dogs, two beloved cats, and I spend a crazy amount on bird feed. So I get it. But I also donate to many children’s organisations, and work HARD as an advocate for the homeless and the poor, here & overseas. And I won’t prolong my dog’s life unnecessarily. Nor my cat’s.

When our dogs and cats have become unable to live full lives, we’ve ‘put them down,’ as the euphemism goes. And I wish with all my heart this was an option for people who are unable to go on. It’s not, at least not in most states. So if I inherit my mother’s Alzheimer’s, I will have to go to Oregon to die with dignity.

via theatlantic.com

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Dignity. What a loaded — and vague — word. Not one we usually apply to our pets. But when my cat can’t make the letterbox  by himself, and my 14-year-old dog has pneumonia that would leave him unable to breathe w/out intervention? We decided for them: dignity (and a normal animal life) outweighed our desire to keep them with us.

In addition? I don’t feel that my dogs are more important than my grandson. Nor my beloved cats. And on a fixed income, choices can come down to just that. But for those of my friends & families who have animal children, I get that this is just my decision. I wouldn’t impose it on anyone, even if I had that power.

And yet I still think starving children are the saddest thing in this country of so much plenty. This doesn’t lessen the sadness of homeless animals, and animal abuse. I just wish some of the many $$ going to do things like create a living room for a pet in a boarding kennel were going to help a child find a meal…

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the family you have, the family you choose

the author's

the author’s

I am very lucky: I have a relatively large network of family. Three sisters, a brother-in-law who’s great, lots of nieces & nephews, even two aunts still living.

I also have a large family-of-the-heart: BFFs, ersatz brothers, cousins, and just folks who feel like family. Each as different from the others as gardenias from roses, but all necessary to me.

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This past few days, my ‘brother’ has been in town, w/ his wonderfully funny & creative wife (my ‘sister-in-law’), and their astoundingly smart, witty, and beautiful three daughters. We were able to get together each day of their short trip, and I was happier than…teddy bears? What IS the happiest of beings, anyway? (I’m banking on domestic cats, myself…)

More seriously, the family we choose — those friends we love as dearly as if we shared bloodlines — are perhaps more important than those we ‘have.’ To paraphrase Robert Frost, family is who has to take you in. I know: it doesn’t always work that way. But there is a kind of explicit responsibility that blood dictates, for most of us. We don’t badmouth family — even if they’re as mean as crimped snakes.

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the author’s

Whereas the family we choose? Each time we meet, it’s a gift — given from love & shared memories and passions. How cool is that? My brother-of-the-heart, and his dear dear wife, are the perfect examples. I’ve known him all my adult life — he introduced me to my beloved, in fact. And she is the wife I would have chosen for him, had I been all-wise and all-powerful. Their three girls almost convinced me to adopt, even though I knew in my heart that I was really too old & tired for a baby, however wonderful. These girls, let me tell you, are darn near perfect.

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All five of them remind me how much happiness — and being w/ people whom you love — influences your state of being. After a day w/ the group, I’m a better person: trying to learn to be more friendly, more caring, more of a listener, and less of a story-teller (I soooo love stories!). And I can do that — although not well! — best w/ my families. The good news is that no matter how giddy or caffeinated I am, they do take me in. I ove them all dearly. And the best news of all? They love me back.

 

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quilts, teapots, and living day by day

wedding quilt the author's

wedding quilt
the author’s

As I often do when I’m worried or beset by whatever, I cleaned out a closet the other day. And rediscovered things I’d forgotten: a quilt my mother made me when I married; a quilt my sister quilted from a quilt top my grandmother made. And because my household is a place of some fragility these days, I took them out — remembering my mother and her love of quilting; my grandmother and her love of piecing quilt tops (she cared a LOT less for quilting them!).  Now my younger sister sews, quilts, and knits. She is at least the fourth in a line from my great-grandmother on.

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Today, thinking of those women (and my reacquaintance with how ephemeral life can be…), I changed bed linens. Substituting my mother’s red, white, & sky blue the colour of robins’ eggs quilt for a white crocheted throw, like a ribbon across the white duvet in the guest room. My mother felt very close.

In the studio, where I have all my beading & paper crafting stored & strewn, I laid the crazy quilt my grandmother pieced over the daybed. When my sister quilted it, she bound the edges w/ a tiny elephant print. My mother loved elephants — once my father had one trucked to the apartment where we lived for her birthday, a tiny baby of an elephant, long-lashed & utterly adorable. It was the best of birthday antics — she laughed & cried, charmed. And I remembered how I am only the latest bead in a necklace of women. My mother, her mother, her mother before her.

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crazy quilt the author's

crazy quilt
the author’s

That quilt bears pieces from everyday life: each scrap a shirt, a dress, a blouse. Maybe a curtain that once hung from the window of Great-Grandma’s house in a small town an hour away from 4 of her 5 daughters. It bears witness to every day of lives lived a hundred years ago, at least in places.

I also made tea in my favourite teapot — one given me years ago by women I haven’t seen in 25 years. Wreathed in cottage flowers, it sat happily on a silk brocade placemat I only use rarely; it’s ‘too nice’ for everyday use. And I brewed a pot of the Sunday tea — a pricey China black I can’t justify too often.

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Here’s where this is going: life is not stone. It doesn’t last. It can blink out like a candle in a sudden gust. What good are our things — these precious pieces that are the traces of happy times, family, places long behind us — if we don’t see them? Use them? Let their very presence remind us of all that they embody…?

I’m going to keep on using up my things. Taking out the linens we bought in Hong Kong before my younger son was born. Making a tea cosy out of my mother’s Army/Navy tablecloth; the one w/ a big hole in the middle. It’s older than I am, and links me to a mother who won dance contests BK (before kids). Life seems very fragile — even ephemeral — to me these days. So I’m surrounding myself w/ all I’ve been to help go wherever it is I’m going to end up. And I shall drink from a china teapot, insulated from the chill March breeze by a tea cosy made from my mother’s past. Watch my rescue cats lounge on handmade quilts stitched in every seam with love. And it will all be okay.

 

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a shadow of the past

via flickr

via flickr

I’ve looked everywhere to find the photographer/ artist who made this picture. It would be wonderful to thank him/her, because I love it. And I live it, although I’m not quite as old as the woman in the picture. But I’m certainly not as young as the dancer, either!

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I once asked my grandmother, who must have been in her 70s then, what it felt like to be old (the 70s seem much younger than they used to!). She thought for a moment, & responded: Well, honey, I look in the mirror and think: who is that old woman?? Inside, I’m still the same.

My mother-in-law was the same, and my mother even more so. Until Alzheimer’s claimed my mother, she was the first to dance, the first to sing, the first to riotously happy. No alcohol needed.

I almost never dance anymore, although once it was a huge part of my life. As a teen I even danced w/ a local dance troupe — pop dance, not ballet, although I took ballet into my awkwardest of years: post-babies. When I signed up as adult w/ my 5-year-old son, I received ‘most improved’ at the end of the session. Along w/ comments like, I’ve never seen a grand jété done quite like that… I didn’t care. I loved dancing.

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I danced w/ my beloved at embassy parties, at cocktail parties, at picnics and dinners and Hallowe’en galas. His best friend often partnered me, throwing the much-slighter me of years ago into the air, and then catching me in a graceful arc.

Now, running has taken its toll on my knees, I’ve had a joint replacement, and I don’t dance. Except like this — inside, with the same fervour I always had.

Beginner’s heart is like that, I think: an inside dance that may not be at all apparent to anyone else. One that transforms us on the inside. But it casts shadows. Dancing, light-hearted shadows. And they’re beautiful, like blithe dancers…

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